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Finding God in “Godless” Media

Growing up in Christian school, the phrase I heard most often, as it pertains to entertainment, was this: You’re not allowed to watch that. 

I don’t think I’m alone. Many of us who were raised in Christian homes and taught in Christian schools had our entertainment “choices” carefully scrutinized. Many parents used this very site to help with that scrutiny. And many families rightly want to avoid “godless” entertainment.  

But every family draws the line differently. For some, PG-13 movies are off the table well after their children turn 13. Others might disallow horror movies or superhero movies, regardless of rating. Harry Potter might be the film franchise that shall not be named. And some families might forbid anything but Christian media to enter the home at all. After all, secular entertainment—be it movies or television or music—can be a strong, and often detrimental, influence on children who consume it. 

Plugged In respects whatever lines your own family has drawn. And certainly, we’d be the first to say that we need to set appropriate limits. You don’t want a 9-year-old watching The Shining, no matter how much he wants to. But I believe a Christian’s interaction with secular media can, and perhaps should, change when he or she becomes a discerning adult.  

Not only can consuming “godless” media be permissible, but it might even have a redemptive purpose as well. 

As long as it’s approached wisely. 

Sovereign Over the Secular  

One of the most “spiritual” entertainment moments I’ve experienced was prompted by a story with some very secular content. The Broadway musical Miss Saigon features a young Vietnamese woman named Kim whose life changes after American troops vacate her country at the end of the Vietnam War. Kim fearlessly overcomes adversity to reunite her child with his father, Chris (an American Marine whom she met in Vietnam). Faced with opposition, Kim realizes the only way for her son to live a prosperous life is through self-sacrifice.  

The musical deals with problematic themes (and certainly would not receive a Plugged In stamp of approval), but the primary message poignantly highlights sacrificial love. And despite the difficult content, my first viewing of the musical gave me a more complete understanding of Jesus’ sacrificial love for me. 

How is it possible that such biblical truths can be found in media created by unbelievers? Scripture repeatedly provides the response by showing how God uses unbelievers. For instance: Prompted by a dream, Pilate’s wife professed Jesus’ innocence (Matt 27:19). Rahab, a prostitute, protected the Jewish spies from the king of Jericho (Josh 2). The pagan King Cyrus allowed and funded the reconstruction of the temple (Ezra 5-6). Clearly the power of the living God does not rely on someone’s acceptance of Him.  

And I believe you can see God at work in the same way today, too.  

I see this concept affirmed by more recent narratives and individuals. Robert Louis Stephenson, whose faith oscillated from Presbyterianism to atheism to somewhere in the middle, authored Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although dualist and humanist themes appear, Stephenson’s gothic horror novella keenly depicts the corrosive nature of sin on man’s imago dei. In the story, Dr. Jekyll recognizes his propensity for evil and attempts to separate himself from it. But the experiment turns horribly wrong, and his evil alter-ego wreaks havoc. Though likely not Stephenson’s intentions, Dr. Jekyll’s failed attempt at escaping evil exemplifies man’s inability to separate from sin apart from God.  

A contemporary example is Pixar’s Soul. Although its depiction of spirituality and the “beforelife” is problematic from a Christian perspective, its primary message reflects scriptural truth. The main character, Joe, learns that he doesn’t need a dream career to be happy. Instead, he finds satisfaction, and even joy, in his current situation. To me, that sounds a lot like Paul’s lesson on being content in all circumstances (Phil 4:11-12).  

Go Into ALL the World 

There is a second, and arguably more important, reason to consider consuming secular media: Stories invite us into the worlds of their creators.  

Why should Christians care about these secular worlds? Jesus commanded, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).  

Stories can provide a gateway to do just that.  

In Leland Ryken’s book, A Christian Guide to the Classics, he says, “Reading secular literature can help us form a bond with the human race, and sometimes this is even truer when we read the literature of unbelief. Literature highlights the human condition to which the Christian faith speaks.”  

This is not to say that you must agree with an unbeliever’s perspective. Indeed, when you approach such stories, you must approach with your brain fully engaged and your soul firmly locked on God. But you should approach with open hands and a willingness to see the world as they see it. You don’t need to agree with someone to sympathize with how they feel.  

My reaction to Hulu’s Somewhere Boy exemplifies this idea. The show’s main character, Danny, is a troubled young adult who struggles with fear and loneliness. While I disagree with his methods of overcoming these issues, I sympathize with his situation. And because the show has allowed me to step into the world of Danny, I might be better equipped to share Christ with people like him.  

Proceed With Caution 

So what is an effective way to share why people need Jesus?  

First, you should have an accurate understanding of their broken condition and empathize with them. Then, when a relationship is formed and trust is grown, there will be space to introduce them to the solution.  

But if “godless” media helps us to enter into someone else’s world, how should we, as Christians, enter into that media (should we choose to do so)? With discernment. Lots of discernment.  

While elements of truth certainly exist in secular media, falsehoods and lies lurk there, too. We still face an enemy who seeks to steal, kill and destroy. And just like Christians can use secular media to their advantage, our adversary uses it to his, as well.  

Discernment defends against this deception, and Scripture provides a great example of what this looks like. 

 In Acts 17, Paul preaches to the Berean Jews who eagerly listen to what he has to say. But they don’t stop there. The Bereans check Paul’s words against Scripture to confirm that his message is true. In a world where we have access to God’s word in our pockets, we should diligently apply this principle to media consumption today. 

When it comes to truth, the standard is Scripture. When secular media aligns, it reminds us that we serve the almighty God who can use anyone for His glory. When it doesn’t, we experience the brokenness of this world and remember our responsibility to proclaim its Savior. 

Sarah Rasmussen

Sarah Rasmussen is the Plugged In intern for Summer 2023.

13 Responses

  1. -I do love all those points that you have given and I find many of them true in day-to-day life as well.
    Growing up, my family had a rather odd view (for a “typical” Christian family at least) about our media. We were actively encouraged to read/listen/watch both “Christian” and “Secular” media, but the Christian stuff was much more heavily scrutinized than Secular content, because of problems similar to what you mention in “Flamy Grant, CCM & the Gospel” as well as others. They (and I) belive that media that claims to be Christian should be held to a higher standard than “Secular” media because of what they supposedly believe. Yes, we still didn’t consume much media with much swearing, sex, or similar things, but I think that because we did those things, I was able to actually grow in my faith and my willingness to witness because I was able to see that the world struggled with many of the same or similar issues I did.

  2. -This site is targeted at Christian parents, so naturally the author is writing (very thoughtfully) from a Christian perspective.

    1. -I know that I just find it very strange when they make a big deal about certain things like. if a gay person even is in anything at all.

      1. -God makes homosexuality a big deal, so as a Christian it’s not right for me to ignore it, no matter how small. How, exactly, to address it, ends up a matter of personal belief and family comfort level.

  3. -Yes! This is my take exactly as well! I’m still cautious with what I allow my kids to watch because of their age and spiritual and emotional immaturity. But there are some shows, movies, and games that my husband and I are better able to engage with and pull spiritual themes from. Shows like Black Clover and Yona of the Dawn, games like Persona 5 Royal and Yakuza 0, and movies like the Rurouni Kenshin live action films are replete with swearing, violence and non-Christian religions but they also carry powerful messages about things like perseverance, self-sacrifice, truth, honor, God’s sovereignty, the value of life, forgiveness, redemption, leadership, justice, hope, and long-suffering.

    My oldest son once asked me why his dad and I are allowed to watch shows and play games that he isn’t allowed to. I told him, “You know how we’re able to drink coffee and you’re not, because it impacts your body differently from ours? It’s like that with everything we consume. Daddy and I have developed the maturity and insight required to handle some of these stories that shine a light on some of the darker, more sinful parts of the world. But you’re not there yet. You still have a lot of growing to do before you’re ready for that. And our job is to make sure you grow properly so when the time comes, you’re prepared for it. And when it does come, we’ll get together and talk about them over coffee after.”

    God’s attributes, His fingerprints, are all over creation. And when we write good stories, we cannot help but include His attributes in them, whether we intend to do so or not. If you’re mature enough, as long as you approach media with a critical eye and take the time to filter out the good from the bad, you can find yourself with some really powerful and meaningful discussions, even from stories written by people who care nothing for God at all. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll spur you to pray for those storytellers, too. It’s easy to condemn. It’s much more difficult to beg God to put people in their lives who will lead them back to the Author of the truths they weave into their own tales.

    1. – I might add that unless you are a Christian, and familiar with the Bible and the Constitution, media can be very misleading. You need the basic principles in order to discern right from wrong. But quite a good job, Ashley. Thanks

  4. -My parents were probably overly cautious with media. Anything PG or over we had to get permission for. I remember wanting to watch Revenge of the Sith because we’d seen the other Star Wars ones, but I wasn’t allowed to. Also National Treasure and Pirates of the Caribbean were ones that were really popular with the teens at my church, but my mom would not approve me watching them because they were promoting thievery, etc.
    I’ve since seen these movies as an adult and enjoyed them but I don’t think my mom was wrong to be careful, although secular media can help us understand the culture better. I’m really grateful for Plugged In also because it is from a Christian perspective.